Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Also includes contributors from all walks–from the not-yet-published to bestselling authors and industry leaders–and that it’s grown into such a rich community for writers.
In his short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Raymond Carver sets two couples to talking on the subject of love, They are drinking gin to help them discover what they mean, but by story’s end, there is no resolution. The four have talked their way through an afternoon, from daylight to darkness. Carver leaves them there, in the dark both literally and metaphorically.
I don’t want to end up in the same place, but my subject is love, specifically the love that readers have for the written word, and for writers. I think the distinction between the two is worth considering.
Here’s a hypothetical. I visit a well-known writer’s website. The writer is promoting his latest suspense novel, in the course of which he laments how little support he’s been getting from those closest to him, his friends and family.
The writer acknowledges how time-starved so many of us are, and that reading is time-consuming. He even goes so far as to acknowledge a simple if depressing truth: many people just don’t like to read. Even so, it seems to him the neglect he feels is not his imagination. Even if those he knows don’t have time to read or can’t be bothered, it seems reasonable to him that they would show a little interest in what he does. He has been let down, and wants people to know it.
When I read these complaints, I think there’s something wrong. I comment to the effect that this successful, admired writer seems to be engaged in self-pity. Of course I know what he’s talking about. With a handful of exceptions, who among the community of writers doesn’t know? But reading this writer’s expression of being wronged just doesn’t seem right. Not in the face of his success in the marketplace.
Is my comment motivated by envy for a writer much more successful than I am? That’s certainly possible: I write suspense novels, too. But in my view, even if my motives are questionable, that’s not relevant. To me, the writer deserves to be challenged about his complaint.
Reaction is swift. One person replies to my comment by saying it’s wrong to criticize anyone for thinking out loud about something that bothers him. We all have the right to express ourselves on anything, and who am I to say otherwise. Another tells me that if I knew the author, I would understand that he never complains about anything, that he’s tough as nails. Not only is he tough, but he’s also mindful of sensitive matters related to race, class, gender, and the environment. Another supporter points out that the author is extremely dedicated to his craft, plus he goes out of his way to help other novelists.
I am an older writer, so my takeaway from all this may be influenced by my age. First, it’s true: I don’t know the writer. I’ve never gone to a reading or book-signing of his, I’m not on his mailing list, and we’ve never met at a conference. Those who have defended him obviously do know him in some way, and they see my criticism as unfair. The writer should be left alone. He’s hard-working, and makes every effort to do his best, plus he champions socially responsible goals in his work.
For me, as a writer, these reactions reveal a new, dubious aspect of our craft.
First, the words I’m reacting to in this hypothetical situation are taken from an author’s blog. That’s something not only unheard of but impossible until very recently. Secondly, those who leap to the defense of my hypothetical novelist do so in terms that have nothing do with the words he wrote and that I read. They are mostly the defenses we offer for friends and family. Those close to us are good people, and we want others to know how hard-working and morally admirable they are.
This I think is both the appeal and the danger posed by the rise of social media. In the current moment, writers are far less likely to succeed if they don’t create a posse of online followers. These supporters are encouraged to develop something like a familial or at least a personal relationship with the author. When this happens, the writer sells more books, and readers enjoy a sense of belonging to something like a fan club, or even a cult.
Is this in any way dangerous?
If you think that what we talk about when we talk about lit should focus first on what’s written, not on friendship or admiration, then yes, it’s potentially dangerous. To the degree the growing emphasis on electronic fandom shapes our reactions, the importance of good writing and clear thinking is almost certainly diminished. Fandom also reduces the likelihood of writers gaining the advantage of hearing the unvarnished truth.
More importantly, if we think of the effect these burgeoning, personalized connections between writer and reader are likely to have on the reviewing process, and on critical thinking in general, there’s nothing trivial about it.
What do you think? Is this is a matter of real importance, or an older writer’s overreaction to changing times? Have you “pulled your punches” and silenced yourself as a consequence of knowing a writer too well to risk speaking the truth? Did you decide it was just a matter of good manners, not one of honesty?
In other words, do you think the growing media-enabled connection between reader and writer is blurring our commitment to critical thinking in favor of fandom and loyalty?
After a career in college teaching, Barry Knister returned to fiction writing. He writes both literary and genre novels, and is published by BHC Press. For several years, he served as secretary for Detroit Working Writers, and for two years he directed the Cranbrook Summer Writers Conference. He is the author of the Brenda Contay suspense series. Earlier this year, BHC re-released Just Bill, his novel of magical realism about dogs and their owners living on a golf course in Naples, Florida. Barry and his wife, Barbara, serve as staff for Skylar, an Aussie shepherd rescue. The three live in Pleasant Ridge, just north of Detroit. Barry looks forward to hearing from you, either through Facebook, or his website. Insult comedians are welcome.
And on the Saturday of the conference, Jeanne Bowerman, longtime editor of Script Magazine (and a vivacious personality whose energy may be running half of Los Angeles’ power grid), is giving a session called “Introduction to Screenwriting,” one of the types of sessions she has frequently offered in California iterations of Writers Digest’s conferences.
While elements of screenwriting programming aren’t entirely new to writers’ conferences, they tend to stand out a bit more in “the age of Netflix.” A new emphasis on storytelling in fine television work and cinema has been part of many discussions recently, something I touched on in April here at Writer Unboxed.
One of the most compelling exercises arrived about 10 days ago, when the Publishers Association–the UK counterpart to the Association of American Publishers in the States–released a major study (PDF) it had commissioned, the big message being that film, TV, and stage productions likely to do best on the market are the ones that start with a book.
As we’ve reported at Publishing Perspectives, when compared to original scripts and screenplays, the Publishers Association is announcing that book adaptations attract, on average:
44 percent more in UK film box office revenue (and 53 percent more globally)
58 percent higher viewership of “high-end” television productions
Nearly three times more ticket sales for theater productions
A point of interest to those following the Brexit saga in the UK: the Publishers Association’s report is both clever and important to the British publishing industry, which is working very hard this year to display its importance among the “creative industries” (entertainment) in the country’s economy as the break with Europe approaches. Those industries are going to need robust support in the development of trade treaties for export and other arrangements that for decades have been covered by European Union rules.
So the impetus for the association is a wise one, but it also gives us a chance to look at a rarely quantified view of the industry.
Whether you subscribe to the idea that the “storytelling imprimatur” may be shifting somewhat from books to screen (meaning not as many film and TV works are based on them), we’re clearly in a “golden age,” as some are calling it, with film and television gaining traction in the attention economy. Production is booming at Amazon Studios, HBO, Hulu, Showtime, and the ubiquitous Netflix, which now originates many of its finest shows in non-English markets first before bringing them into the US system.
I can recommend, for example, the system’s first French-produced outing, Dan Franck’s political thriller Marseille with Gerard Depardieu, an impeccable production from a French company called Federation Entertainment.) I’ll give you a break from my palaver: check out the trailer here.
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
Here’s a little secret: When I was on a three-city tour of German publishing houses in June with 15 publishers and editors from the UK and the US, some of us got into what might be called a “guilty” discussion. Several of the group admitted–to lots of sympathetic nods–that they’re not reading as much as they used to, because, as one put it, “TV is getting so good.”
This is unnerving to many in the group. They’re worried because they’re the pros in the business and they expect themselves to be utterly dedicated reader. And yet they, too, feel the siren call of the Roku box, right?
So here’s my provocation for you, and I’m sure I’ll need Don Maass’ help on one factor I’m going to toss in. I’d seriously like to have your responses, when you can tear yourself away from Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick:
Do you do film treatments of your books?
If not, are you learning screenwriting?
Do you think it would make sense? The rationale here would be that you know best what your book needs in terms of at least initial film development and making it shoppable in Century City can’t hurt.
Is it unthinkable because it would only distract you from your usual writing?
Don, this is where I need your input, and James Scott Bell, are you here? Is it possible that working on a screenplay of, let’s say, your third draft of that latest novel could open up new ways of seeing and understanding your book? If, for example, you bring the filmmaker’s eye to your story, does it give you a better look at where to cut, tighten, refine, and hone the impact of your story?
So could it be a good move for your craft as a novelist to learn some elements of screenwriting and apply them to your work in progress (or regress, as the case may be)?
Or does this whole line of questioning just make you fat on popcorn?
Here’s looking at you, kid. Tell me what you think. At the very least, isn’t this a good excuse to take a vacation this summer to Rome? You can tell everybody you were studying at Cinecittà. My secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions, Federico. See you in comments, ciao.
Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.
Here’s the question:
Would you pay good money to read the rest of the chapter? With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.
So, before you read the excerpt, take 30 cents from your pocket or purse. When you’re done, decide what to do with those three dimes or the quarter and a nickel. It’s not much, but think of paying 30 cents for the rest of the chapter every time you sample a book’s first page. In a sense, time is money for a literary agent working her way through a raft of submissions, and she is spending that resource whenever she turns a page.
Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre or content—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.
This novel was number one on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list for July 22, 2018. How strong is the opening page of the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of the first page.
Nicholas Young slumped into the nearest seat in the hotel lobby, drained from the sixteen-hour flight from Singapore, the train ride from Heathrow Airport, and trudging through the rain-soaked streets. His cousin Astrid Leong shivered stoically next to him, all because her mother, Felicity, his dai gu cheh—or “big aunt” in Cantonese—said it was a sin to take a taxi nine blocks and forced everyone to walk all the way from Piccadilly Tube Station.
Anyone else happening upon the scene might have noticed an unusually composed eight-year-old boy and an ethereal wisp of a girl sitting quietly in a corner, but all Reginald Ormsby saw from his desk overlooking the lobby were two little Chinese children staining the damask settee with their sodden coats. And it only got worse from there. Three Chinese women stood nearby, frantically blotting themselves dry with tissues, while a teenager slid wildly across the lobby, his sneakers leaving muddy tracks on the black-and-white checker board marble.
Ormsby rushed downstairs from the mezzanine, knowing he could more efficiently dispatch these foreigners than his front-desk clerks. “Good evening, I am the general manager. Can I help you?” he said slowly, over-enunciating every word.
“Yes, good evening, we have a reservation,” the woman replied in perfect English.
Ormsby peered at her in surprise. “What name is it under?”
This is Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received an average of 4.1 stars out of 5 on Amazon. I had mixed feelings about this one, primarily because the POV in the opening paragraph led me to think that this was Nicholas’s story, but it quickly seemed to divert from that. (I checked the first chapter and, sure enough, it does look like it’s his story.) Still, though, the author does a good job of signaling that trouble is coming by letting the bigotry in the hotel manager seep through—the children are staining the settee, Chinese is constantly used to “other” the women and children, and then he over-enunciates what he says in the way one does when talking down to a perceived inferior. Those hints, plus a strong voice and writing, moved me to another page to see what would happen next (and I wasn’t disappointed). What did you think?
You’re invited to a flogging—your own You see the insights fresh eyes bring to the performance of bestseller first pages, so why not do the same with the opening of your WIP? Submit your prologue/first chapter to my blog, Flogging the Quill and I’ll give you my thoughts and even a little line editing if I see a need. And the readers of FtQ are good at offering constructive notes, too. Hope to see you there.
To submit, email your first chapter or prologue (or both) as an attachment to me, and let me know if it’s okay to use your first page and to post the complete chapter.
Ray Rhamey is the author of four novels and one writing craft book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. He's also an editor of book-length fiction and designs book covers and interiors for Indie authors and small presses. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for writers and publishers. Learn more about Ray's books at rayrhamey.com.
This was a difficult post for me to write. I stopped and started at least five times. I was going to post about something much lighter. Why was this so hard for me to get out?
Because I fear I don’t have a real answer.
The news is full of unrelenting turmoil and bad news. In my social media feeds lately, I’ve seen a ton of writers despairing about the current state of the world.
Many of the sentiments boil down to this:
How can we do something frivolous like write books when what we need right now is concrete action? I’m too depressed to write.
I’m not entirely sure myself how to write while the world seems to be turning into ashes around me. So first, I read some essays. I turned to greats like Toni Morrison. If you haven’t yet, I recommend you read “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear.” Though it was written in 2015, it is utterly prescient. Here she describes how despots work:
Select a useful enemy—an “Other”—to convert rage into conflict, even war.
Limit or erase the imagination that art provides, as well as the critical thinking of scholars and journalists.
Distract with toys, dreams of loot, and themes of superior religion or defiant national pride that enshrine past hurts and humiliations.
It’s important, Morrison points out, to remember other writers from history who wrote under much more difficult situations. Through jail and torture, threatened with death and exile, writers have insisted on making sure their voices are heard.
Vision of the Truth
Next, I read a speech JFK gave at Amherst, honoring Robert Frost and the arts. In part:
We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.
Best serves his nation. That reminds me of the phrase people used to use to practice typing: Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.
Now I can try to apply these ideas to my own writing. For me, writing has always had a two-fold purpose: to make me understand my world, and to entertain.
Writing is my way of showing you a different worldview. It’s how I grab you off the street and hold up a magical pair of spectacles to your eyes that puts you into another person’s body. To live another life. To say, “Yes, but have you considered this? And this?”
So if I write with empathy and purpose, if I have a way of seeing that I want to convey, that then becomes my reason for continuing.
This is what we do.
We are here for this.
Here’s a final, inspiring quote from Morrison. She writes: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Now is the time for all of us to come to the aid of our country.
I need to write because the world is burning down.
Have you felt paralyzed lately? How have you coped?
Margaret Dilloway is the author of the new middle grade series MOMOTARO: XANDER AND THE LOST ISLAND OF MONSTERS (Disney Hyperion) and three women’s fiction novels. She lives in San Diego with her family and a big Goldendoodle named Gatsby. She teaches creative writing to middle schoolers and does developmental editing.
This month we’re once again looking at an opening passage. The situation certainly tense enough – a woman with two small children facing up to her need to escape from a physically abusive husband. And the author makes skillful use of her techniques to create that tension – note how the narrator, Nikki, is sensitive to every time Jack touches her.
But the author also gets in the way of the drama of the situation in a couple of different ways. So take a look at the editing and judge for yourself. I’ll offer my own comments below.
As always, you’re welcome to submit your own work to The Writer Unboxed stable of editors. You can find the guidelines here.
The house lights dimmed. The curtain lifted.  He Jack still hadn’t arrived by the time the houselights dimmed and the curtain lifted. If he would only stayed away, Nikki might would have a chance to gather her strength, to think. She nuzzled Seth’s baby fine hair as he cuddled on her lap, his small hand twisting her long brunette hair for comfort.
The opening chords of the “Sugar Plum Fairy” played, and on stage, her pretty little daughter, Kasey, led the four to six-year-old girls, all dressed in sherbet-colored tutus across the stage. AThe girl in the lime tutu turned the wrong way, and dear Kasey stepped out of line to push her back into place, quickly returning to her spot to continue the routine. She had Jake’s outsized confidence.
Then For a moment Kasey paused, frowning, followed quickly by a smile that lit up her Kasey’s face and . Sshe waved to the side of the auditorium. Nikki followed her gaze, and tThere was Jake stood with his white Stetson in hand, leaning against the wall, white Stetson in hand, wearing a silly grin as big as Texas. He threw their daughter a kiss, Tthen cast a devilish smile at Nikki, like nothing out of the ordinary had happened when taken place as she was rushinged to get the kids dressed.
Kasey’s group finished, and Jake excused his way down the row of seats.  As he passed in front of the women, they smiled, as if enjoying a glimpse of his butt in tight Levi’s and his broad shoulders in a white western shirt. He wore a practiced casual look with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his caramel colored hair combed David Beckham’s style with loads of product. At one time, she’d been proud to be on his arm. She, the tom-boy prosecutor, chosen by the spectacularly good-looking cop.
JakeHe rode the cushioned auditorium seat down to a sitting position and. Appearing happy with himself, he wrapped his arm around her shoulder. His breath smelled of minty Scope overlaying and not quite hiding a layer of and Captain Morgan rum. “How’s my pretty wife?”
He didn’t really care. If he did, he would change back to the man she married.  “Glad you made it for Kasey.”
“Of course I’m here. Why wouldn’t I beWhat were you thinking?”
She’d love to tell him, but it wouldn’t make a difference. Nothing did. He even quit couples counseling saying it was just pick on Jake time. Her best friend,
Lex Ann, sitting next to Nikki on the other side, rested her hand over Nikki’s hand and squeezed. Nikki had no idea how she’d have made it so far endured except for Lex Ann.
Jake leaned forward, resting his hand on Nikki’s knee, but his hand lost its hold and skidded off. He‘d had more than one Captain. laughed, a bit too loud, “Hi, Lex Ann, Brodie, what a great night.”
TheA knot of older ballerinas walked on stage. The lady in the row in front of them turned. “Shush.”
Jake smiled at the womanapologetically and squeezed Nikki’s hand, like they shared some joke. Like it wasn’t just two hours ago that he’d They shared nothing good these days. He didn’t even have remorse for earlier tonight when he pounded on the bathroom door as she watchedso hard the wood splintereding at its hinges, fearing he would break through, Like she hadn’t hugged Kasey in a corner of the bathroom, praying the door wouldn’t give. Like Kasey hadn’t been screaming, “G go away Daddy!”.
And that was when she realized. It was time. It was past time. She couldn’t delay any longer, but he couldn’t know until she was gone.
But it would take planning, work, time. And he couldn’t know anything about it until she was already gone. So she patted his hand and forced a smile, as if she were in on the joke.
The audience applauded, startling her back to the present, and she joined in. She clapped wildly as if she’d enjoyed their dance. Brodie, Lex Ann’s husband, blew his best ballpark whistle.
After Jake finished applauding, he draped returned his arm around to her shoulder again, and . He squeezed her in something part faux a sign of affection or and part possession. It was hard to tell these days. She no longer cared.
TMadam Elise, the ballet instructor thanked the audience and dismissed the girls. They ran to their parents, Kasey leading the pack. She climbed on Jake’s lap, kneeling as, her vibrant blue eyes, staringed into his of that same vivid hue. Kasey had obviously forgotten about the bathroom tonight’s incident. , sShe always did, b. But who knew what kind of marks he was leaving behindfor how much longer? “Did you like it Daddy? Did you?”
“You were great kiddo. In fact, so great I’m taking you to Dairy Queen.”
Kasey squealed in delight and gave him a big kiss. Then she jumped off his lap and took her mother’s hand. “Mommy, did you like it.”
“You were magnificent.”
Jake pulled Kasey back beside him and leaned across Nikki to get Brodie and Lex Ann’s attention. His hand once again wound up on buttressed upon her knee. “Hey guys, how’s DQ sound?”
Nikki’s stomach knotted knowing what was comingthe scene that awaited. Jake claiming drink didn’t affect him like it did others, insisting he drive everyone in his new pickup. HerShe refusing to ride with him in his condition. He unbending in his Him refusingal in turn to ride shotgun in a soccer mom’s SUV.
Lex Ann’s two daughters arrived. Brodie said, “You girls were fabulous. How about ice cream to celebrate?”
Their faces ignited with joy. “I want a blizzard.” The older said, “Strawberry shake.” Brodie saluted his lieutenant, half in jest, they’d been friends since junior high, but as of yesterday, Jake had become his boss, chief of criminal investigations.
Brodie put on his Stetson. “Move on out girls, DQ awaits.”
Lead with the fact that he’s not there. It would be what Nikki is most concerned with, and it alerts readers to what’s most important in the scene.
Having Kasey go through more than one emotion is a bit distracting.
Don’t frontload your story with description. I think the “devilish smile” actually gives readers enough information about Jake to more or less picture him accurately. You can’t pull off a devilish smile unless you’re good looking and know it.
Interior monologue is an excellent way to show how your narrator reacts to stuff, but you don’t want to interrupt the dialogue too often.
Note that this kind of sounds like she’s both realizing for the first time that she needs a plan and that she already has a plan in place.
The first thing I’ve tried to do with my editing is to loosen up the language. It’s often more formally structured than it should be, with a bland vocabulary and an almost academic voice. “. . . appearing happy with himself . . . “ “They shared nothing good these days.” “. . . buttressed upon her knee.” These are the sorts of awkwardness that jump out at you when you read the passage aloud.
I’ve also tried to cut some of the information that the author is packing into these first couple of pages. Granted, it can add to the sense of danger to know that Jack is a police officer and is now the boss to Nikki’s best friend’s husband. It emphasizes his power over her life. But at this point, I think that what’s going to suck readers into the story is being in Nikki’s head at this moment. And she doesn’t really have any good reason to think about Jack’s profession now.
Finally, I’ve tried to clarify a bit just what her situation is. It’s certainly clear that she needs to leave and that her life is at risk. But it’s not clear just what flavor that risk comes in. Are readers experiencing the moment when she first realizes that she has to completely upend her life and confront her dangerous husband? Or are they with her as she struggles to hide a secret plan, already in place, until she can put it into action? Either is dramatic, but the author needs to pick one and hit it a bit harder. I’ve chosen the “moment of truth” version, but your mileage may vary.
In fact, if your mileage does vary, I’d love to hear about it. If you were editing this passage, how would you handle the situation?
Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.
A year and a half ago, in the grip of a writing deadline I feared I would miss, I discovered an environmental productivity hack I’ve used ever since.
Its unearthing came about by experimentation. I’d been trying to write in various public locations, but if I found a fruitful environment it was only a matter of time until something would drive me away. (A shrill laugh that couldn’t be neutralized by earplugs and headphones; flirting teens who’d repeatedly bump my table; an insistent bladder and remote bathroom, with no one reliable to watch my stuff during my absence.)
These jaunts proved expensive, too. Effectively I was earning temporary office space by paying in time (for my commute) or coin (parking fees, beverages, calorie-dense food.)
I haven’t even mentioned my introversion, which never thrilled to writing in public for extended periods.
Quest for the Ultimate Home Office
It became clear that I was after replicable and inexpensive quiet, which ideally meant writing at home. Unfortunately, my house had become a busy locale, which was the reason I ventured outside of it to write in the first place. No matter how early I woke or how I much I contorted my writing schedule, it never possessed a sense of repose or peacefulness.
Most problematic of all, my office—the only location I could seem to write without falling asleep—had become associated with stalled progress and interruptions. Each time I entered it, I could feel my deadline-driven anxiety rise.
Discovering the Secret Weapon
I don’t recall the exact precipitator, but one day, in a fit of desperation, I wound up in the basement laundry room with my laptop. And suddenly, what felt impossible was being accomplished, albeit in fits and starts. I returned the next day, and the next, and through books 1 and 2, the laundry room never lost its magic. In effect, I ended up discovering the wisdom in the following:
Stop trying to be disciplined and be a good person. Instead, put your efforts into setting up a supportive environment and creating the systems that allow you to follow through with good behaviors.” ~ a paraphrase of Dr. Doug Lisle, Ph.D, during a YouTube seminar on how to make healthful dietary changes become habitual
Basement laundry room, in its untidy glory
Why You Might Consider Pursuing an Environmental Writing Hack
Unless you are one of those 5,000-8,000 good-words-in-a-day geniuses or are consistently happy with your writing output, I’d encourage you to spend time and effort on optimizing your environment.
Consider that if you’re able to write 1000 words in a writing session and write 300 days of the year, a 5% improvement—a mere 50 words a day—would mean an extra 15,000 quality words written. A fifth to third of a book without any extra effort.
Going About the Environmental Hack
Where are you most productive in your writing? Do you know? If not, in the name of experimentation and learning, you might start keeping a spreadsheet. Do it in Excel or do it the old-fashioned way on paper, but do it. Record what you were working on, and when you started, where you were, and your word count or the number of hours you were able to spend in deep work. Then over a period of weeks—not days, because days are too granular and subject to random variability, like how much sleep you got the preceding night—see if you can detect a pattern.
Once you’ve discovered a productive location, break it down into its subcomponents. This allows you to continue to tweak the setup until it’s as close to ideal as possible. More importantly, if something should happen to your original location or you have to move, you can replicate the helpful elements in a different locale.
That’s what I did this summer (see photos below.)
For instance, this is what I like about the laundry room:
The cement walls and tile flooring provide a sense of safety.
Located next to the washroom.
Quiet—the room materials absorb sound. If I need white noise, I have the laundry machines, but I keep all other noise sources out of the room, including the phone.
It is small, no bigger than a closet, really, in terms of walking space, imparting a feeling of coziness.
It contains no visual distractions and is decorated in earthy or neutral colors. (I removed all games from my laptop and keep the internet blocker running so it has never become a place associated with external distractions.)
Its smells are associated with order, cleanliness and control. (The latter is critical to my writing as I’m most able to be wild on the page when my life feels non-chaotic.)
The writing surface is a scarred wooden table used in the kitchen for years, so it is associated with family and health. The ToolMaster made the credenza, doubling down on the feeling I’m being embraced by my family as I write. Though now warped, its color reminds me of university library carrels, which I associate with hard work and goal attainment.
As you can see, nothing in the room is fancy enough to cow me. My laundry machines are over thirty years old. (We’re still on our first top-loader because the ToolMaster is handy and the commercials about Maytag repairmen turned out to be true.) Everything speaks to utility, pragmatism, and a can-do spirit. For me, this is important because formality tends to invoke fussiness and perfectionism.
When Nearly Perfect Isn’t Good Enough
All that said, there are two things I strongly dislike about the laundry room, and this became relevant when my daughter left home and freed up a bedroom. First, it lacks natural light, and as a SAD sufferer, this is less than ideal. Second, it is cold. Even wrapped in a bathrobe and blanket during the summer, I can barely stay ahead of the chill.
Here’s how I took what I love about the basement and moved it into a space with light and heat.
Safety—The room has a door and I’m able to place my back to the wall. (An improvement over the previous setup.)
Facilities—The washroom is located next door.
Quiet—This space is located at the opposite end of the house from the worst noise. Its carpet dampens sound. If I need white noise, I use the ticking of my mechanical timer or a YouTube video.
Size—though the room is quite large, I’ve replicated the cubbyhole feeling by duct-taping posterboard around the outside edges of the writing surface. At some future date I’m going to try angling the desk, causing me to sit at the apex of the corner. I suspect that will feel cozier yet.
Visual distractions—This was initially problematic. Shortly after I thought of repurposing the room, my husband had the same brilliant idea, except he wanted to use it for storage. Nor has my daughter removed all her belongings. I don’t need much room to write, but I cannot abide looking at clutter when I do. Hence the pseudo-credenza made of posterboard, which provides a simple, non-distracting view for $6 Canadian. I’m also in the progress of discarding and tidying what I can, so my trip to the desk has become more peaceful. Future tweaks might involve sewing different drapes and painting the room a cheerier color.
Laundry room smell—an easy fix! When I do the household delicates, I hang them to dry in the closet.
The writing surface and emotional furniture associations—I didn’t want to spend money, so I’m using the banquet table we bought and use for large family meals. I also spent a whopping $2.50 for a vinyl tablecloth, which I cut to size and duct taped to the table. The colors are soothing, earth-toned, and the table is no longer cold to touch.
Avoiding formality—between my irreverent coffee mug (it says love you lots) and the inexpensive-but-functional furniture, my muse is happy. In fact, you never read this here, lest I jinx myself, but if the writing continues apace, book 3 will be complete in a few months.
Now over to you, Unboxeders. When it comes to writing, what is your best environmental productivity hack to date? If you’d like to do better, what one simple difference could you accomplish in the next week to improve your writing output?
A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen; Cold and Hottie) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.
Barbara O’Neal is not only a beloved longtime contributor here at WU, she is an award-winning, internationally published author of eleven novels. Her latest is called THE ART OF INHERITING SECRETS, and releases on July 17th!
Said bestselling author Patricia Sands (The Love in Provence series) of the book:
“O’Neal’s clever title begins an intriguing journey for readers that unfolds layer by surprising layer. Her respected masterful storytelling blends mystery, art, romance, and mayhem in a quaint English village and breathtaking countryside. Brilliant!”
“This is my first mainstream book in four years!” said Barbara. “I’m very happy to be publishing with Lake Union, who’ve done an amazing job on this book.”
Read on to learn more, and big congratulations to Barbara!
Q: What’s the premise of your new book?
BO: A San Francisco food editor discovers that she has inherited a derelict English estate along with a lot of secrets. To discover the truth of her mother’s life, she’s going to have to do a lot of digging.
Q: What would you like people to know about the story itself?
BO: There is more to it than the simple inherited house and secrets angle—which is, by itself, a ton of fun. Who wouldn’t want to run away into a world where you’ve suddenly discovered you’ve a pedigree and a title?
It is part mystery, part love story, part family saga.
Olivia is grieving her mother deeply and trying to understand why she never shared such important knowledge. I have a passion for the connection between England and India during the 20th century, so the book is rooted in that uneasy relationship.
And finally, this is my love song to the English countryside, which is in as much danger from development as any other part of the first world. There are few places on the planet so amenable to the human being as England in summer, or a place with better strawberries.
Q: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?
BO: Olivia has just finished with a brutal year—her dog died, she had a bad car accident and her mother died—and now she has to decide what she wants for the rest of her life. She has a fiancé and a fabulous job back home in San Francisco, but the possibility of something else, both harder and more satisfying, in England. She isn’t sure she’s up to the undertaking.
To make her inheritance work, she first has to unravel who is opposing her inheritance and who stole the funds she should have had to restore Rosemere Priory. The house is literally starting to fall down. Some of the villagers can be prickly and there is a lot of money to be made on the manor lands.
Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?
BO: Honestly, this book was a joy from the moment it arrived, practically whole, one morning during the Writer Unboxed conference in 2016. It springs directly out of many of my loves—England and 20th century history and food (of course) and the Indian diaspora to England in the 50s.
I had to do a ton of research, of course. So much research, but I love that. When it came time to create the authentic, upscale, British-Indian fusion restaurant and menu I wanted for background, I found myself waaaaay over my head—Indian culture and food are enormously complex, and I needed help. A Facebook friend, Kaumudi Marathe, memoirist and cookbook author, gave me a ton of help and direction. I also asked friends Monica Pradhan Caltabiano and Sonali Dev to read for me after the first draft for cultural sensitivity.
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?
BO: When I started the book, I wanted an escape from real life in the worst way. It was a challenging time personally and in the world, and I love that I can now offer that escape to others. Come away to the English countryside, take a break, let your spirit rest!
Learn more about The Art of Inheriting Secrets on Barbara’s website, HERE, or by exploring the book feature below. Enjoy!
Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, or join our thriving Facebook community.
I hear a lot of “what if” and “if only” and “If I could just” and “So and So has what I want!” I’m not immune to it, but I am growing ever more Aware of it. Circuitous thinking, round and round it goes, endless. We don’t remember wishing for that something because when we reached that goal, we were already circling to find the next thing, and that for which we wished for prior has already been left behind. I like goals; I’m competitive. But dang it! When do we celebrate? Where’s the WHAHOOO! . . . ?
Here’s what I imagined would happen when I received word that my first novel Tender Graces (and guess what? I never liked that title! ha! Now I said it! I wanted Mountain in the title; yeah, strong and mountain and kin. Like the Russian version they titled “Above the Mountain is Light” by Katherine Madzhendi, and there’s Mad in my Russianized name! haha! Er, where was I? oh yeah: here’s what I thought would happen when I received word my novel) would be published: I’d jump up, scream WHAHOOO!, hug anyone who happened to be around, email gamillions of people, yell N’YA N’YA N’YA N’YA N’YA I TOLD YOU SO! to those who said, “How’s that hobby, you know, that cute writing hobby you got going there? Still plugging along? *knowing looks abound* . . .” and then go celebrate with Ketel One over ice with a tiny sliver of lime.
Here is what really happened: I’m sitting alone in the dark. I’m sipping very strong black French Roast, the sun just slipping over the Smoky Mountains. I read the email of how the wonderful Bellebooks/Bell Bridge Books (Thank You, Bellebooks!) wants to offer me a contract. There is no sound but my old dog’s snoring. I stand, walk dazed around the little log house, and it is hours and hours later before I tell anyone—because I might jinx it. Because it may not be Real. Because something will happen to screw it up. Because they will publish me and five people will buy my book and they’ll regret they published me. And so on and so forth, blah diddity blah blah blah. Nothing new here, yammer yammer.
And in a blink of a flea’s eyelash WHOOOSH!, the first novel becomes the second, then third, and soon a novella, and fourth novel, and fifth. Have I done any real celebrating? I guess not. And I’ve let slip more than 4 years since that last novel, what with just over 4 years ago two incomes becomes All Me Income and writing feels more a luxury she can’t afford and she’s okay with that, sure she is; she doesn’t miss the long hours writing so she can instead work work work to pay her mortgage and bills; she had her moments of writing writing writing writing and writing WRITING WRITING WRITING WRITING, and now she must Not Writing. Oh Terrible Angst and Woe! Well, my sweet lil log house is, also, worth sacrificing something precious, even when it sucks to sacrifice. (But really, yes, it is rather sad, don’t you think? The lost books I still need to find? If I could catch my financial breath?)
It all feels as if it were some dream. That some other woman sat in this very room and tippity tapped her fingers over the keys and out spilled hundreds of thousands of words that were bound between a front cover and a back cover and it’s all MAGIC! Right? Magical hard damned work of which I am damned proud.
Do I miss the “luxury” of writing full time, most of the time, any time-tic-toc-time? Would you miss your left arm if it suddenly disappeared? (And if you don’t have a left arm, I’m sorry.)
Right now, I stop, look over my right shoulder, and nope, not a dream at all of course; there they are, my (so-far) Life’s Work shining out. At one time, I received some decent monetary gains from these books, and though I still receive royalties, they really are becoming really super-duper teeny tiny; *teehee!*
I need to celebrate what I see over my right shoulder!
Hold on, I’m going to jump up and yell AWOOOOOO! Okay, I’m back . . . thanks, whew, I needed that celebratory howl for what I have accomplished. Now you celebrate your accomplishments, and don’t sit here and tell me you do not have any! Let’s hear it: I accomplished *fill in blank* and I’m going to celebrate it!
Toast with some bubbly champagne (yeah, I said that like “sham-pag-nee” so I could remember how to spell it), hug yourself really hard, or hug someone and let them hug you back, eat something decadent. Do a dance of joy. Yell WHAAHOOO! or howl if you like. Come on! Right now! I’ll wait . . . *Jeopardy music here*
Anyone who writes knows the long, hard, frustrating, maddening journey, and knows the work has only just begun once one writes The End. The tweaking, the querying, the rejections, and then finally the hoped-for acceptance, or perhaps the decision to self-publish, are only parts of the complete package that make the word Author, or, gulp, Successful Author (whatever that is!). Sure, there are “overnight successes” who push out a book in three days and it’s picked up by a big time publisher and hits the New York Times bestseller list two minutes later and movie rights come, and zillions of people go see it and then buy the book for all their zillion friends, and the author is soon rolling buck-nekkid on his/her bed atop a pile of cash. In reality, most “overnight successes” have worked their asses off to make their dreams come true. (I’m secretly wishing to be rolling buck-nekkid on a pile of cash *teeheehee* except that sounds kind of gross and dirty-nasty and not dirty-nasty in a sexy way but in a yucky way . . . .)
Yet. Here we are where we are and where we are is the culmination of all this hard work and sacrifice. I acknowledge you and your accomplishments because I know the bumpy-assed road we travel on the way to the unknown.
Every itty bitty step towards a goal should be acknowledged, and every Goal Accomplished should be celebrated. *Raising my jittery-shaky-handed-coffee cup to you*
So will you first acknowledge, and then celebrate, your successes? Right now? How?
Kathryn Magendie is an Amazon Kindle Bestselling Author of five novels and a novella, as well as short stories, essays, and poetry —Tender Graces was an Amazon Kindle Number 1 bestseller. She’s a freelance editor of many wonderful authors' books and stories, a sometimes personal trainer, amateur/hobby photographer, and former Publishing Editor of The Rose & Thorn Journal (an online literary journal published with Publishing Editor Poet/Songwriter Angie Ledbetter). Magendie’s stories, essays, poetry, and photography have been published in print and online publications.
From her porch over-looking the Great Smoky Mountains she contemplates the glow of Old Moon—Cove Crow and his family speak to her and she listens.
Beyond a basic orientation to the software, what’s the number one thing people want help with in Scrivener?
Compile. No contest.
In April, I introduced Scrivener 3’s new approach to compiling (exporting) with a post about section types. Section types are foundational to the new compile feature, so if you need to bone up on the topic, I recommend you start there and then come back. (Or at least check it out later.)
Ready? In this second installment on compiling, I’m going to help you export your manuscript to a Word document, but the process is similar for other types of output.
Why might you want to compile to a DOCX file?
Submission to an agent or editor.
Submission to a contest.
To give your manuscript to a critique partner, friend, or beta reader.
To read through your manuscript and make notes.
Compatibility with Microsoft Word (duh), Apple Pages, and other word processors that will open or import DOCX files.
TIP: DOCX files are based on Rich Text Format (RTF), which is compatible across more word processors, and may do a better job of exporting images, lists, and tables than DOCX. RTF is also best when exporting for Apple Pages. If you’d prefer to create an RTF, choose Rich Text (.rtf) in step 2 of “Choosing Your Format” below.
Whatever your reason, you can create a lovely DOCX without too much fuss. I promise. Before you start, be sure you’ve set up your section types under Project>Project Settings>Section Types.
Choosing Your Format
The format determines what the final output will look like, including the margins, fonts, line spacing, first-line indents, chapter headings, scene dividers, and paper size. For this example, we’re going to choose a submission-style format.
Go to File>Compile (or click the Compile button on the toolbar). The Compile window opens.
From the Compile For dropdown at the top, choose Microsoft Word (.docx).
In the Formats column at the left, select Manuscript (Times). This format also works for other types of output, like RTF, Print, PDF (if not creating a paperback book), and HTML.
Adjusting the Look
If you’ve never assigned section layouts for this format, you’ll see a yellow box in the Section Layouts column (center) warning you about it. Even if you have, you’ll want to ensure they’re correct for the current project.
The following image shows common elements of a section layouts “tile” and what they represent. I selected this layout because it shows most of the possible elements, but this one would work best for those who do not use chapter folders, and have one document for each chapter.
To assign a section type to a section layout, do the following.
Click the Assign Section Layouts button in the center column. The Section Layouts window opens showing a tile with an example of the section layout’s settings for each layout.
Select a section type in the list at the left.
Scroll to find a section layout tile with the desired formatting on the right, and click it.
Repeat Steps 1 and 2 until all section types are assigned.
Click OK. The Section Layouts column now displays your choices.
Choosing Your Content
In the right-hand column, make sure you’re viewing the Contents pane. If not, click the Contents button at the top (looks like a bulleted list).
Now select the files in your manuscript that you want to include in the compiled output.
Assigning Section Types
Be sure that the section type for each file is correct. If not, you can change it by clicking the dropdown menu under the Section Type column heading.
Section Types appearing in gray italics have been automatically assigned based on your rules in the Project Settings. When you manually assign a section type that differs from the Structure-Based rules you set, it shows as black, regular type.
Click the MetaData button at the top (looks like a luggage tag) to make sure your name and book title are correct.
Setting Compile Options
Click the gear button at the top to adjust the compile options. This is where you can include/exclude annotations, comments, and footnotes, and remove other formatting globally from your output.
When you have everything set as desired, you’re ready to compile.
In the Save As text box, type the output file name.
Choose a location for the output file.
If you don’t want the file to open automatically after compiling, deselect the option to “Open compiled output in.” Or, you can change the software (e.g. you want to open a DOCX in Pages instead of Word).
Click Export. All of the Compile windows disappear once your file is created.
Compiled DOCX displayed in Pages
Troubleshooting the Easy Stuff
If you aren’t getting the look you want, here are a few quick things to check.
Have you given your files the correct section types (in the Contents pane)?
Have you assigned the right section layout to each section type (in the Section Layouts column, under the Assign Section Layouts button). For example, if you only wanted auto-numbered chapters but you’re getting chapter numbers and their titles too, change the section layout for your chapter folders’ section type to something like to Chapter Heading.
If you want the font to be the same throughout the manuscript, you can override the font settings elsewhere.
At the top of the Section Layouts column, there’s a Font dropdown menu.
Choose the desired font from the list.
If your front matter documents don’t have page breaks between them, make sure their section type is assigned to New Page rather than As Is.
If you can’t find a layout that does what you want, you can create your own. Right-click any compile format and choose Duplicate & Edit to create your own. If you were familiar with Compile in the prior version of Scrivener, much of this will look familiar. You can edit the section layouts under the Section Layouts tab, which is similar to the old Formatting tab.
Worst case, you can get your manuscript really close to what you want and make it perfect with a few easy tweaks in Word or Pages. Have fun!
What questions do you have for me about compiling, or Scrivener in general?
Gwen Hernandez is the author of Scrivener For Dummies, Productivity Tools for Writers, and the “Men of Steele” series (military romantic suspense). She teaches Scrivener to writers all over the world through online classes, in-person workshops, and private sessions. Learn more about Gwen at gwenhernandez.com.
One of the first things an editor wants to know about your novel is how many points of view you’ll use. In the broadest strokes, who gets a point of view will determine the structure of your story; down to the smallest detail, it will determine how perspective will illuminate it.
Will this be a story sunk deep inside one character’s perspective, as Garth Stein chose to do through Enzo, a dog, in The Art of Racing in the Rain? Will it alternate first-person perspectives that define and deepen the conflict between adversaries, as in Andre Dubus III’s The House of Sand and Fog? Or will it represent the seven principal parties impacted by one young girl’s fight for self-determination, as in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper?
Such a decision shouldn’t be arbitrary. Some readers choose the novels they read for the way they allow a new perspective through which to view the world.
Not all POV decisions can be executed perfectly. Dubus’s plan worked out just fine until about three-quarters of the way through, when his story demanded that the reader know something that only a non-POV character was experiencing—which led to an odd chapter in the third-person perspective of a secondary character. Picoult—or perhaps her publisher—anticipated that her multiple points of view would be so hard to track that they put each character’s chapters in different fonts.
I could tell you never to do that because it’s cheesy and against all principals of good book design and if your novel is that confusing just simplify it, but this is how much readers care about such things: My Sister’s Keeper, which came out in 2004, still carries an Amazon ranking of #12 in contemporary literature. And Dubus’s novel, with that glaring POV switch, was an Oprah pick, a National Book Award finalist, and a #1 New York Times bestseller.
The most important thing is that these novelists told great stories through perspectives that would serve their telling.
So, how might you handle sixteen perspectives?
That’s how many WU contributor Bryn Greenwood employed in her New York Times best-selling novel, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Why would she even attempt that, and how did she get away with it? Let’s see what we can learn from her mad skills.
Why choose multiple perspectives
Greenwood’s story zeroes in on a volatile cultural taboo: age of sexual consent. As much as I enjoy exploring topics that make us twitch, even I had never thought to look at this issue. I mean, we should be protecting our youth from adult predators, right? Case closed.
But what if the greater danger comes from the child’s own parents?
To raise this question in a way that would make her readers think—all while managing the emotions of readers whose opinions are entrenched—Greenwood chose a very loose POV structure that allowed her, in any given chapter, to dip into the perspective that would best illuminate that part of her story.
Her opening gets right to the heart of things, fittingly enough, through perspective. We meet her protagonist, Wavy, through the first-person voice of her cousin Amy, whose mother took in the five-year-old when Wavy’s parents had to do some jail time. From the outset we see Wavy the way others do: voiceless (Wavy rarely speaks) and odd (she won’t eat in front of other people). The second chapter moves to her next caretaker’s perspective—her grandmother’s. Only on page 23 do we finally hear from Wavy, and by this time, we start to get that the novel’s very structure is suggesting how hard Wavy will have to fight to make her own opinions matter in the world.
At the tender age of eight, Wavy meets her baby brother at her grandmother’s funeral. As her parents resume “guardianship,” Wavy becomes his main caretaker while her father cooks meth in a nearby barn and her mother sleeps the days away in a haze. Meanwhile, one of her father’s drug runners, 24-year-old Jesse Joe Kellen, who is obliged to Wavy for helping him after a motorcycle accident, starts to check in on her. He takes her to school. Pays her school fees. Cleans up the house. Cares for her. They stare up at the stars together, learn the constellations. They grow to love one another.
So who else do we hear from? Kellen, of course. That helps us know that his motivations aren’t of the creepy pedophile variety. Wavy’s teacher gives us an important outside perspective, as she thinks Kellen is Wavy’s father. Two of her father’s girlfriends, determined to win her father’s sexual favor, give us a look at the rarified world in which Wavy learns to be female. As Wavy grows old enough to try to seduce Kellen, her Aunt Brenda gives us the reasonable arguments any protective mother-figure might pose. Later, the perspective of the judge who jails Kellen for statutory rape provides the legal context.
Simplifying numerous perspectives
Why did I struggle so with Picoult’s seven perspectives, yet found Greenwood’s sixteen so easy to follow? For one thing, Greenwood showed such restraint, lol: in an interview at the back of the book, she explains that she had drafted more perspectives, but several didn’t make the cut. If you want more on this topic, I recommend that reading.
But the story is clarified through its unrelenting forward movement. Greenwood’s chapters do not flip back and forth through time, nor is one event explored through multiple perspectives; you can rely upon a confident, ever-spooling chronology to order the narratives, and trust Greenwood’s POV choices to effectively deliver that part of the story.
Oh, and there’s one more thing Greenwood does right: she does not attempt to converge those sixteen perspectives into a single beam of white light at novel’s end. Age of consent invokes deeply ingrained moral sensibilities and one novel isn’t going to change that. Wavy and Kellen’s story provides a prismatic look at the issue, and despite its satisfying ending, the prism still stands, casting a full rainbow of colors through its facets. Can you say, “perfect book club read”?
In the end, a perspective-heavy, issue-oriented novel need not change minds. It must simply open them. Greenwood’s sixteen perspectives do just that.
How did you decide on the POVs for your own work in progress, and what were you hoping to accomplish by doing so? Do you have other examples of stories that worked well precisely because of the choice of POV? Other thoughts on use of perspective in Greenwood’s book, if you’ve read it?
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn's website.